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“You’re going to see really good players have really bad years,” he told reporters. “It’s going to happen. … You don’t have that large sample size for everything to even out, so if you get off to a tough start or a bad start, you’re really behind the eight ball.”
Sure enough, Yelich is hovering above the Mendoza line with a .207 average entering play Wednesday. With less than a month left in the regular season, the 2018 National League Most Valuable Player has been a notable disappointment.
And he isn’t alone.
Second baseman Jose Altuve, who won American League MVP honors with the Houston Astros in 2017, is hitting .225. And third baseman Kris Bryant, the 2016 NL MVP with the Chicago Cubs, hit .177 before landing on the injured list.
That’s a trio of presumed superstars who have scarcely hit their weight. Is it a small-sample anomaly or cause for serious concern for their respective clubs?
Let’s begin with Yelich. He won his MVP trophy in ’18 with a .326 average, 1.000 OPS, 36 home runs and 22 stolen bases. In 2019, he bested those totals with a .329 average, 1.100 OPS, 44 home runs and 30 stolen bases and finished second to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger in MVP balloting.
Yelich’s ’19 season ended that September on a foul-ball-induced fractured kneecap, but he came into 2020 seemingly healthy and amid his prime at age 28.
Yet that batting average leaps off the stat sheet in the worst possible way.
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Here’s the good news for Brewers boosters: Yelich’s .229 batting average on balls in play is 126 points lower than his career BABIP of .355. Meanwhile, he’s posted a career-best 53.2 percent hard-contact rate compared to a career average of 39.7 percent and an average of 47.6 percent in his 2018 MVP season.
That suggests a heaping helping of bad luck and the small-sample vagaries Yelich warned against.
Yelich has also flexed his power with nine home runs and has markedly improved his stats after going 1-for-27 in July.
Still, Milwaukee is mired under .500, in third place in the NL Central and on the fringe of the postseason race. A stronger start from Yelich wouldn’t have reversed those fortunes entirely, but it would surely have helped.
Staying in the NL Central, the Cubs are leading the division and appear ticketed for the playoffs, no thanks to Bryant.
He set career highs in home runs (39), RBI (102) and OPS (.939) in 2016 and won an MVP trophy as Chicago busted its infamous title drought.
This year, the 28-year-old slashed .177/.271/.323 in 17 games before a sprained finger and ailing left wrist put him on the shelf.
He returned to the lineup on Tuesday and went 2-for-6. Maybe he’ll make a difference for the Cubbies down the stretch. So far, though, he’s done little to either boost the North Siders’ chances or increase his trade stock as he heads toward free agency following the 2021 season.
“That’s the challenge in this season, to continue to have these guys focus on the daily task,” Cubs skipper David Ross told reporters after Bryant’s return. “Numbers aren’t going to be where you want ’em. They can turn around really quickly and spike. And they can also go the other way really fast, too.”
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That brings us to Altuve. A three-time batting champion, he was named AL MVP in 2017 when he hit .346 with 24 homers and 32 stolen bases and the Astros won the World Series.
Now, in the first season since the sign-stealing punishment that tarnished Houston’s reputation, the 30-year-old is slashing .225/.287/.326. Cue the buzzer/trash can jokes.
As with Yelich, there may be some sample-size oddities at play. Altuve’s .264 BABIP is well below his .335 career mark, while his 38.5 percent hard-contact rate is 10 points higher than his 28.5 percent career average.
And even if you think he cheated his way to some of his hits in the past, it strains credulity to claim anyone could do what he’s done without a ton of innate talent.
“Altuve, he has been hitting all his life,” Astros manager Dusty Baker told reporters. “It’s only a matter of time before [he] hits again.”
Houston is trailing the Oakland Athletics in the AL West but is on track to make the playoffs. Once there, Altuve will have a chance to atone for his early shortcomings, as well as the club’s lack of pitching depth, while thumbing his nose at the doubters. Stay tuned.
When it comes to Yelich, Bryant and Altuve, injuries and sample size can at least partially explain the unsightly 2020 stats. But results are results, and thus far these three have not delivered at anything close to the caliber their clubs were banking on.
Yelich himself said it’s going to happen to some guys this year. And, sure enough, it has happened to this high-profile trio of recent MVPs.